Small factories have been part of Hudson County since the industrial revolution. Some were furniture makers and at least a few shops remain, continuing this tradition. Here are three master craftsmen in the county who are making museum-quality pieces.
For several years Rob Wilson has been producing custom cabinetry and furnishings, built-in and free-standing, executed with extreme precision by his European machines in his workshop at the Yardley building in Union City. He started out in Hoboken’s Levelor factory in 1996. A junior designer in the venerable industrial design firm of Henry Dreyfuss Associates, Rob worked primarily on the John Deere account. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, he cut his teeth in custom furniture making during the heyday of the art furniture movement in the late 1980s and ’90s studying with Wendell Castle, often considered the father of the movement. Rob’s superb craftsmanship and use of precise fabrication machinery made him uniquely suited for his later work on display designs and custom store fixtures for jewelers.
Tom talks about finishes the way chefs talk about plate presentation. Approaching stains and varnishes with an alchemist’s zeal, he channels long-lost techniques, practicing his magic on two floors of the Neumann Leather building where pieces in various stages of production and restoration await his care.
He is mostly self-taught, working many years ago with a local furniture delivery man who fed him small repair and refinishing jobs. Tom perfected the art of “French” polishing typical of much European furniture. This skill led to commissions with some of Manhattan’s most prestigious antiques dealers, with whom he still works today.
Studying the work of George Nakashima, considered the father of the American craft movement, and master finisher George Frank, Tom searched for the long-forgotten recipes in the ancient tome Les Secrets Du Vernissage Et Du Laquage Du Bois, the Dead Sea Scrolls of furniture staining. Disappointed with the quality of lumber available locally, Tom began selecting trees in upstate New York and having their trunks milled to his specifications, sometimes at water-powered mills. This controlled cutting using the French boule method ensures control of color, texture, and grain patterning, an important detail in the unique tables for which he’s known. Tom considers himself an artisan or custom furniture builder—not an artist—and will work on any item of furniture except chairs. While he’ll re-finish them, their forms—echoing the human body—are hard to render in wood by cabinetmakers who produce tables and case goods.
Completing his education in record time at the prestigious L'École Boulle, Eric became a teacher, which left him time to open the first of many cabinet shops, including a piano cabinet restoration company in Bordeaux, where he also designed and built prototype piano cabinets for Playel. Eric completed his masters at the Sorbonne and began buying, restoring, and selling antiques.
Moving to New York in 1995, Eric got a gig as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A musician as well, he returned to France long enough to open a recording studio/club/vintage guitar and piano shop, but by 1999 he was back in the United States, living in Hoboken, and working in the Neumann Leather building. After Christie’s sold the legendary Alma-Tadema “Steinway Art Case” piano for a record sum, Eric’s shop in Hoboken was entrusted with recreating this historic 1887 cabinet.
Although Eric will sell an antique piece or create or restore a custom item of any size, this unique shop specializes in creating total interior environments using exotic veneers and finishes on furniture that is part of a cohesive whole.
Resources Robert Wilson Furniture Design
600 Palisade Ave.
Thomas W. Newman, Cabinetmaker
321 Newark St.
Chapeau Antiques & Restoration, Inc.
300 Observer Highway